Taliban strikes heart of the Pakistani army

Forty people killed in gun, grenade and suicide bomb attack in garrison quarter
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The Independent Online

Senior Pakistani army officers were targeted yesterday in a bloody militant suicide bomb attack that killed at least 40 people. In the most high-profile assault on the army since it launched a major ground offensive against Taliban militants in South Waziristan two months ago, suicide bombers and gunmen laid siege to a two-storey mosque in Rawalpindi's garrison quarter.

They opened indiscriminate fire on a group of worshippers and hurling grenades at the crowd before two bombers detonated their explosives. At least six military officers were among the dead, as well as three regular soldiers. Some 17 children were also killed.

The attack marks a return for militant violence aimed at the heart of the military establishment. "It was an absolute disaster," said Amir Shaikh, a retired army captain and regular worshipper at the mosque nestled among military officers' residences. "I saw a lot of people who used to be in the front row with me [in class pictures] lying there dead. I met army officers looking desperately for their sons."

The attackers kept firing for a long time, Mr Shaikh added. "They fired from close range. Then they fanned out into nearby buildings. I heard 10 to 15 explosions. There were about seven or eight of the [attackers]... The mosque is no longer there. It is broken down and there is blood splattered everywhere." Mr Shaikh ran back into the mosque, fearing that his son, Nasir, may have been harmed. Eventually he discovered him hiding behind bushes. "It was very terrible inside," Nasir said. "There were two people wearing belts with grenades and bullets. Three grenades were thrown inside, one into the ladies' section. For 10 to 15 minutes we were helpless and hopeless."

The most senior serving officer killed was Major-General Bilal Omer Khan, who had served as "Director General Operations and Plans of the Joint Staff Headquarters". Among the wounded was Muhammad Yusuf, a retired general and former army vice-chief.

The attackers entered the mosque from all four sides, using bamboo ladders. One suicide bomber who had hurled grenades at worshippers then run into the men's section of the mosque, had been carrying 8kg of explosives, the army said. A second bomber detonated his device on the stairs.

Military officials said four attackers were killed after the army mounted a response. The surrounding area was sealed off, allowing only rescue workers to enter. Earlier, local media reports had said three attackers were still on the loose, a claim the military did not confirm.

Just weeks ago, gunmen had laid siege to the nearby military headquarters for 22 hours, killing 10 army personnel and four civilians. Two days ago, a suicide bomber killed a security guard outside a naval complex in the capital, Islamabad.

The mosque was near Qasim Market, the site of a 2007 suicide bombing that targeted a bus carrying employees of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Analysts said the latest atrocity, in a wave that has killed some 400 people, demonstrates that the offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan has so far failed to diminish the militants' capacity to strike deep into the country's heartlands.

Six weeks after dispatching 30,000 troops into the harsh and mountainous Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, the army claims that it has cleared vast swaths of territory and killed more than 600 militants. But the operation appears to have scattered the guerrillas. "They have left South Waziristan and moved to other parts of the tribal areas and the mainland," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a military analyst at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "Today they got the opportunity to strike army officers, whom they blame for the operation against them."

Although many Pakistanis will complain that the government appears powerless to staunch the attacks, yesterday's bombing is likely to harden resolve against the Taliban. "They are going to be more against the Taliban because a mosque and army officers were attacked," added Mr Askari-Rizvi.